Henry Martyn’s Short Stint in India and Persia:
Prior and Later Influences

First Appeared in Mission Focus Annual Review, vol. 20, 2012, 170-88. Appearing here with permission.


Much about India intrigues readers. Westerners who choose to live there look to those who previously experienced the sacred and complex, the confusing and exotic about the land of the Himalayas, Ganges, and Mahatma. Henry Martyn surely knew of India’s mountains and rivers, and had insight into the importance of zero for mathematics that originated there. Long before Gandhi, Martyn likely knew of Akbar the Great; he knew also of William Carey’s then recent efforts. From Britain, colonial patterns came to light through direct exposure.

Asked by a retired American scholar and teacher of religions in India—one who knew many worthy nationals as well as foreigners—“Why study or write about Henry Martyn?” I pondered. I asked questions in return. What stands out about a person who inherited tuberculosis from his mother, lived in India less than five years and in Persia on his return, wished to tell people of freedom in Jesus? How was an institution in India, named after Henry in 1930, known to the writer since the 1960s? Why is a place for research in Cambridge, England named the Henry Martyn Centre? Why examine a profession that historically minimizes the involvement of women—missioning? Or, why not engage with the legacy of Ida Scudder, Amy Carmichael, Martha Payne Alter, or Esther Vogt? What prompted Martyn’s being called “the pioneer Protestant missionary to Muslims”?

Ever looking for western mentors who value and commend eastern culture and religion, I recognize Henry Martyn. When on staff at a Lutheran seminary in south India, I, a Mennonite, studied Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg’s life in order to preach in two South India churches about him, on Gurukul Theological School’s ecumenical Sunday. German Ziegenbalg and Henry Plutschau were the first Protestant missionaries to India, working in the Tranquebar Mission. To hear preaching about one who in the early 1700s translated scripture into Tamil through Hindu insights and wisdom was appropriate for ecumenical church members. Later, when hosted by Hindu parents of a student friend in Hyderabad, I did research at the Henry Martyn Institute library; it houses many fine, Islamic resources. During a visit to Cambridge, England, I explored holdings at the Henry Martyn Centre. Henry became a strong person of interest for me. His facility with languages impressed this struggler with Greek and Hebrew; his determination despite a dreaded disease amazed; his ability to engage the poorest Indians despite sneers from British soldiers whose interest in scripture waned, if ever lived, further impressed. His habit of journaling expressed purpose:

My object in making this journal is to accustom myself to self-examination, and to give my experience a visible form, so as to leave a stronger impression on the memory, and thus to improve my soul in holiness; for the review of such a lasting testimony will serve the double purpose of conviction and consolation.1

The journal opens windows into decades surrounding 1800.

Early Life of Martyn

Born 18 February, 1781 in Truro, Cornwall, England, the son of John and a second wife—former Miss Fleming—Henry grew up with four siblings. When Henry was three, his mother died from tuberculosis, a disease that would claim three offspring. Following Truro Grammar School when not yet a Christian, Martyn’s years at St. John’s College, Cambridge, proved his academic brilliance. Awards included Senior Wrangler, first in his year in mathematics at Cambridge University (a collection of colleges) and a Fellow of St. Johns. He achieved the B.D. degree by 1805. While a student, he along with others came under Charles Simeon’s enduring influence.

As a scholar at King’s College, the devoted Simeon had been ordained deacon and priest before becoming vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge. A “many-sided” pastor and mentor of young men for half a century, he faced public derision as leader of an evangelical revival of the Church of England. Preached from outlined notes, his 2500 sermons later formed 21 volumes, a commentary on every book of the Bible. A firm Anglican committed to Bible and prayer book, and single for life, Simeon started a fortnightly sermon class in 1790 for those ordained and Friday evening conversation parties in 1812. A founder of Church Missionary Society (CMS) begun in 1797, his concern centered in mission work in India.2 He often found chaplains for the East India Company chair of directors Charles Grant, after 1805.

Born in Scotland in 1746 and orphaned with four younger siblings when sixteen, Charles Grant apprenticed with a Cromarty ship owner and merchant, intent to improve family status. A cadet with the East India Company’s Bengal army, he sailed to India in 1767 and began a fifty-year link with that land—mostly from England, in part as a politician. A strong evangelical, his passion called for Britain’s moral and religious duty to Christianize India; he perceived of Hindu and Muslim ways as inferior.3

Henry Martyn both knew and later extended influence: from his younger sister’s being an “instrument in the hands of Providence to bring me to a serious sense of things,” through the memoir of David Brainerd’s work as apostle to American Indians,4 on hearing Simeon’s sermons. He was ordained a deacon at the great Cathedral in Ely in October of 1803, becoming a curate at Holy Trinity Church alongside Simeon the vicar, while taking charge of a parish in the nearby village of Lolworth. A theory suggests that St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre is based on the life and character of Henry Martyn who had helped Charlotte Bronte’s father when a student at St. John’s College. Martyn sensed God’s call to mission effort in India. Although the first English candidate with CMS, he had to change support plans when, in early 1804 through some malpractice, he lost family inheritance following the sudden death of his father in 1800. That death had sorely grieved this son while at St. John’s. Aware of the need to also support his unmarried sister, he accepted the recommendation to go to India as a chaplain with the East India Company. Income was essential, not wealth. En route, Martyn would be sole chaplain with five thousand soldiers—with a host of transport ships protected by several warships.

Before leaving England, Martyn became aware of his romantic feelings for Lydia Grenfell. Counsel from men about whether to go to India single or married caused inner conflict. Mentoring included warnings: that such ‘entanglement’ could interfere with sanctity; that ‘passionate love’ countered “devotedness to God in the missionary way”; of Simeon’s ‘more noble’ voluntary celibacy example. Later, his journal discloses: “My wish [does] not follow my judgment. . . The subject so occupies my thoughts . . . another’s mention of marriage “tore open old wounds; I am again bleeding.”5 Not until 1809 did he presume that “Lydia would never be his.” Yet, memory of the brief, golden hours spent reading poetry and walking along the seaside at Falmouth with this fine friend just before departing could resurface. Then he would recall that her mother refused permission for her to go to India. Or, he would remember that Lydia herself, since formerly engaged, had vowed not to marry as long as that earlier lover still lived. Years of correspondence followed. A final entry in her diary mentions “the beloved Martyn”; she died September 21, 1829, having endured a painful disease at life’s end.

Western Workers prior to Martyn Located near Calcutta

William Carey remains well known—in part for thirty-six continuous years of translation work done in India enhanced by early access to a printing press. But Martyn’s standard of scholarship moved beyond the Baptists working from Serampore. He helped them understand biblical texts or questioned their translation decisions. Insight into Carey’s conduct gives the writer pause. Early in the Carey mission career, the Carey parents knew the misfortune of son Peter’s death. Their struggle to find helpers to dig a grave or carry the dead child added shame to grief. Hindu or Muslim volunteers reported losing caste for having done such unclean tasks for Christians. Mrs. Carey’s experience of the death caused her to lose her mind. After her collapse, William spent much of his time in Calcutta honed in on translations, leaving his wife and four rowdy sons in the care of Hannah Marshman in Serampore. That a mission agency did not have the Carey family return to their homeland, even for furlough years, with such a health crisis seems less than responsible today.

Baptists located at Serampore, a Danish Colony, over a decade before Martyn’s arrival. Carey, the first messenger with Baptist Missionary Society of England, arrived in 1793. His survey of world religions at the time reports 420 million (nearly 58%) Pagans, nearly 18% Mahometans, 13.7% Roman Catholics, 5.6% Protestants, 4.2% Greek and Armenians, and 7 million (nearly 1%) Jews.6 With no knowledge of what came to be called Hinduism, Carey also knew little about Muslims of India. Common nationals saw the new religion for their region as from “outside” with no connection to their country. Fairly intolerant, Muslims claimed their religion to be superior and more modern; it offered a more perfect religious experience. While both religions preached brotherhood, Muslims judged Christians for failing to live that quality. Because both Christians and Jews corrupted their scripture, Allah had revealed to Mohamet a new text. British traders showed little concern for Indian folk; for a half century the British company’s government proved hostile toward Christian missionaries.

Both Hindu and Muslim village people listened carefully to Jesus’ teachings, but most chose not to respond to calls to change loyalty. Christians could be freely critical of Hindu superstitions; some Hindu reformation movements followed. Muslims could defy or learn teachings in order to argue, find fault with, or oppose missioners. When William Ward attacked the character of Mohamet, Muslims became furious. A crisis occurred when three hundred copies of a Tract issued from the Serampore Mission’s press circulated around Calcutta. It accused Muslims of incurring God’s wrath, Mohamet of being a tyrant. When called to the Government Secretary, Carey promised to withdraw the offensive pamphlet and clear future manuscripts before printing. Another mistake of Ward’s followed his having a Muslim convert translate an abstract about Mohamet’s life into Bengali. The translation deviated from the original causing hostility with Muslims. Again, British Lord Minto threatened to confiscate the press.7 Positive press activity followed in 1818 when Joshua Marshman began to publish a local newspaper and what became a quarterly periodical called The Friend of India.

Education for nationals near Serampore became another important factor prior to Martyn’s arrival. The first school began in 1800 with a learned Maulavi appointed to teach Persian and Arabic and a Hindu pundit to teach Sanskrit. Before long, one hundred schools, not directed toward conversion, enrolled eight thousand elementary students. Serampore Hindu College, begun in 1816 and based in Sanskrit, included Arabic and Persian language study. Carey’s “strong scientific bent” brought in European influence along with its choice literature. Scotsman John Mack taught there over twenty years. During the peak year of 1834, enrollment included 34 Hindus, 6 Eurasians, and 43 Indian Christians. Carey’s salary as professor at Fort William College and Hannah Marshman’s successful school helped income issues for the Mission. By 1915 when the first Divinity degree was awarded, Serampore College became “the centre for theological education for the whole of southern Asia.”8

Peroo became the first Muslim convert—after Serampore missioners ministered for two and a half years. The question of caste entered with conversion. Among some Christians in southern India, caste was retained; Carey questioned that practice but called for extensive instruction after baptism. Converts did not replace their Indian names with biblical or western names. Krishna Pal, a Brahman who wrote a number of Bengali hymns later translated into English, was baptized in the Ganges alongside the oldest Carey son, Felix. The majority of converts being from lower castes often experienced rejection and being abandoned by Hindu society. They turned to missioners for support. Aware that too much dependence could follow, a bond of allegiance (Form of Agreement) of 1805 called for an Indian church, with Indian Christians assuming duties of preaching and ordinances, to follow “as soon as possible.”9

Hannah Marshman, mentioned above, is known as the “mother of the Serampore Mission.” As Carey was known as the “father” of the same endeavor, Hannah also was most remarkable. Born in 1767, she was left when orphaned to the care of a grandfather, Mr. Clark, who instructed her in both secular knowledge and genuine piety. Married to Joshua, she birthed a dozen children, six of whom survived. Marshmans with two children traveled to India in 1799. Hannah is noted in Eminent Missionary Women as “the first missionary to women of India and indeed, first of all women missionaries in modern times.”10 Not deterred by the fact that the Baptist Missionary Society did not appoint, support, or recognize women, she is known for these tasks: manager, controller of community expenses, organizer of elementary schools for girls, counselor to Bengali and British women, caretaker (of vulnerable missionary widows, many orphans, and the four turbulent Carey boys). Adjectives used to describe her include: dedicated, creative, versatile pillar of strength, influential, and indefatigable leader in the Mission. She capably restrained her husband’s temper as needed and enabled her scholarly son John.11 With 47 years in India, she outlived the noted trio of early Serampore men—Carey (35 years), Joshua (37), and William Ward (20).

Joshua Marshman administered various educational projects; Serampore College which began in 1818 provided self-support for the Mission. Descriptors for him include: strategist, lay theologian, fiery theology debater, sometimes overly zealous and stubborn, lightning rod for clashes between senior and junior Baptist missionaries who followed, and spokesman between Serampore missioners and the BMS. Although he never visited China, he, as a keen linguist, valued translating the Bible into Chinese. He also spent fourteen years translating The Works of Confucius, finished in 1809, and producing a dissertation on Chinese sounds and grammar. “He was a strong defender of the British government in India.”12 Joshua Marshman, along with Scotsman Christopher Anderson, was instrumental during the mid-1820s in confronting the BMS mode of operating. These two called for closer relationships yet more freedom and independence or control for missioners on ‘the field.’ Not having taken a furlough for 26 years, he wrote a missiological monograph titled Thoughts on Missions to India before returning to London. There, he appealed “for the renewal of missions as a Christian movement,” dependent on the Holy Spirit and God rather than centralized, institutionalized bureaucracy.13

Another Martyn predecessor, William Ward effectively served the early Serampore team as “peacemaker, manager, pastoral counselor, publisher, and cross-cultural trainer.” He produced effective statements of purpose, like the 1805 document and a theology of evangelism. Intent to know national habits and ways of reasoning about theological issues, he called for Hindoos to be respected. His major writing, A View of the History, Literature and Mythology of the Hindoos, explained how missioners needed to engage and value Indian culture.14 His sudden death from cholera in 1823 distressed the group. While the Serampore team worked in or near Calcutta prior to and after Henry Martyn’s few years in India, these individuals influenced his life, along with the East India Company.

Henry Martyn’s Experience – En route to and Early in India

Martyn often found his ministry onboard Union ship undervalued; it was too academic and evangelical. Many soldiers with hard, impenitent hearts ignored or laughed when he rebuked what he called their sinful conduct. Officers and some passengers also opposed his preaching and efforts. Martyn’s Journal reports feelings and events. When docked at San Salvador, he addressed the errors of Franciscan monks. Embarking alongside some Mohammedans, he overheard and judged their hymns about a false God. Present at the British conquest of the Dutch at Cape Colony in early January 1806, he attended to dying soldiers. The horrors of this first taste of war distressed him. He would have preferred Britain to convert, not colonize, the world, to send ministers to “diffuse the gospel of peace.”15 A March 2 entry reports: The ship is running 9 knots per hour; with the sea sometimes flying over the side, the captain cancelled the worship service.16

First landing in India in the southeastern city of Madras, Martyn’s Journal and Letters record details. His sermon about Martha and Mary preached at Fort St. George was described by hearers as “too severe” and “a good trimming.” His intense prayers and observations accompanied temperatures of near-100 degrees. He “made calls,” watched men as they plowed and drew toddy from trees, and valued conversations—with Dr. [Richard] Kerr about “the ecclesiastical state of India” and Mr. Faulkner a Persian translator about languages. That Martyn had studied Bengali, Urdu, Persian, and Arabic grammars en route to India suggests the kind of linguist that he would prove to be. At their first meeting a few weeks later in Calcutta, he and Baptist William Carey prayed together in Bengali. He located in Aldeen, often shifting the twelve miles between the Baptist center at Serampore and Calcutta city. Martyn soon requested more grammars and dictionaries from England. Known as intelligent, he was asked to preach repeatedly in Calcutta churches, but nationals often scoffed at his content.

While Martyn’s parent Company had no intent to alter the idolatry of folk, he reflected what today would be called ‘culture shock.’ He found distinct sights difficult: occasional self-immolation when a widow threw herself on her dead husband’s pyre, people bowing profusely before a black object or lifeless image, noise-making linked with religious festivities of very poor people.17 How Martyn wished to speak with that segment of humanity—to offer them new life, a freedom beyond imagination. How he longed to tell stories about or as Jesus had. Against legalism or then-worldly comforts, he offered spiritual awakening.

Journal entries disclose interruptions by scholars or religious inquirers.

“Mr. Brown’s moonshee [munshi, national translating assistant] came in and disputed with me two hours about the gospel. He spoke English very well and possessed more acuteness, good sense, moderation, and acquaintance with Scriptures than I could conceive to be found in an Indian. (May 16) Hostility posed by Englishmen felt doubly hurtful for Martyn. After preaching in Calcutta’s Old Church, Dr. Ward took him home and “grieved me by many inconsistencies in his temper and conversation.” (May 21)

During a conference of missioners on the topic “Whether God could save sinners without the death of Christ,” Martyn offered an opposite stance to Carey, Marshman, Ward, and Brown. God might save without Christ, he suggested. (May 23)

Further hurt from Ward: “Read at the new church and Dr. Ward preached on different degrees of future happiness, from which he proceeded to attack my doctrines, my last sermon in particular.” (June 7) Marshman sketched out a plan for Martyn in India—to stay in Calcutta a year to learn the language and then take along to confirm a couple ‘native brothers’ up country. But Martyn posed other hopes; he wanted to “be doing.” If he were to locate in Hindu-centered Benares, the commander-in-chief could choose to remove him from that military station. Perhaps being near Patna might suit better.

Days were given to correspondence (as with Charles Simeon, John Sargent, or Lydia Grenfell), language study and translation. He wrote: “. . . began the Bengalee grammar and got on considerably. . . employed the morning comparing Persian and Nagree alphabets and rendering some Hindoostanee stories from one into the other. . . day passed in the same employment as usual: reading Hindoostanee with moonshee and by myself; went on with Marshman in reviewing the translation.”18 A relative John Martyn later described his being a perfectionist: his mind could move through six plus languages, taking his thoughts to bed with him. Returning to Calcutta, he heard of friend Daniel Corrie’s arrival in Madras, of his own appointment to Dinapore, military station of Patna district, near fanatical Muslim Wahabis.


During the six week journey up the Ganges on a budgerow, boat with cabin, Martyn either concentrated on perfecting points of languages, reading Sanskrit, or pastoral stops off-shore to leave written materials among diverse people. With local dialect changes every few miles, conversation knew limits; ineptness with language humbled Martyn. In addition to soldiers, merchants, and officials, he met illiterate women, children, and transients. From among the former he drew resentment because of endearing himself to the needs of the latter. Some Europeans considered caring for “degraded souls” to be beneath the dignity of an English chaplain. Then too, women and children might run from him in fear, or rumors falsely circulated that among tracts offered were copies of the sacred Ramayana epic! Martyn ever recorded observations in a notebook: new words that he heard, national dislike for English conquerors, or a festival to honor the goddess Kali with effigies thrown into the river. On one occasion Martyn inadvertently touched the native boatman’s cooking pot; the rice, having therein been polluted, was thrown into the river. Martyn’s concern for fear due to superstition grew.19

By 1807 in Dinapore, Martyn was commissioned to fully translate the New Testament into Urdu (Hindustani/Hindoostanee). He was to upgrade the weak version from Serampore writers and to supervise Persian and Arabic translations of that text. A Britisher tagged these languages Martyn’s “three wives.” The Urdu text was completed by March of 1808; he also translated the Book of Common Prayer into Urdu. Hindu Mizra from Benares and Nathaniel Sabat sent from Madras assisted. Sabat, Arab of high lineage and convert from Islam, had earlier expounded Muslim law in Madras courts. Such munshis both enabled and frustrated the cause. Sabat, known for his temper, might ask Martyn to prove that the gospel was the Word of God; his prior history with Koranic (Qur’an) thought left him prone to judge as sinful the idea that “God had a son.”20 Ever fascinated by nuances of vocabulary in half a dozen languages, the master linguist or “born grammarian” persisted.

Martyn also spent time preparing to preach, writing letters, marrying British soldiers to Indian women, and starting five or six schools. For the latter, he translated books and produced stories with simple commentary from scriptures, texts like the Sermon on the Mount or Jesus’ parables. Not intent to proselytize, he “wished children to be taught to fear God and become good men.”21 Sarah Rhea describes the four services that he conducted each Sunday—early morning with Europeans (about 500 of the 1600 Europeans attended the service near his home), two for several hundred Hindoos (non-English), an afternoon gathering in the hospital, and one in his own room in the evening for interested soldiers. Such concerted effort often led to pain in his chest.22

Despite the disdain that he knew from European parishioners because of his compassion for “the natives,” through inner faith he knew that “Indians were included in the Divine embrace” . . . that they deserved being met as they “truly were.” So too, an inter-faith logic mattered for Christianity.23 A September 14, 1808 letter to his like-minded friend and confidante Daniel Corrie covers activities of the week: finished translating the great epistle of Romans; frequent visits with many of the European regiment then hospitalized, two of whom were dying; a recent women’s worship service which prompted “no curiosity but ample indifference.” Responding to Corrie’s inquiry about a first baptism of a woman, he closed: “I am, dear brother, affectionately yours, H. Martyn.”24

Cawnpore (Kanpur)

Henry Martyn’s transfer during April 1809 took him four hundred miles south, often in a jolting palanquin in extreme heat, to Cawnpore. Arriving exhausted, physical weakening only increased over the next year and a half. Despite chief munshi Sabat’s “pride, pedantry, and fury,” Martyn pursued translation work and preached to British and Indian folk. At times, he disagreed with Roman Catholic missionary work among nationals. So too, Catholic soldiers grew aloof to him, avoiding Protestant teaching that might “infect” them. As many as one hundred soldiers could be hospitalized—pastoral visits being another task. Martyn named four castes of Indian people with whom to contend: Heathen, Mohammedans, Papists, and Infidels.25 With no church building, his Sunday morning prayers and sermons were preached before hundreds of soldiers near his residence on the infantry ‘station.’ Evening gatherings with devout followers differed from the public, afternoon crowd of hundreds of poor, noisy natives.26 A sermon of Martyn’s, not published until 1822, refers to at least 900,000 Christians in southern India and Ceylon by then . . . Portuguese, Protestant converts around the southern region of Tanjore, Roman Catholics, Syrian Church folk who spoke Malayalim, and Cingalese.27

Mrs. Mary Martha Sherwood, wife of Colonel Sherwood and prolific writer of children’s books,28 often received Martyn into her Cawnpore home. She describes the picturesque afternoon “assembly of beggars” who each received an anna and some rice after the preaching. “Frightful were the [subjects who] usually met our eyes in this crowd; so many with monstrous and diseased limbs . . . professional mendicants and religious [Hindu] devotees.”29 With them, Martyn explained single verses as about the biblical flood, calling people to “fear God who is so great and love God who is so good.” Mrs. Sherwood also reports on a school started by Martyn: “. . . a pack of little urchins . . . with wooden imitations of slates in their hands [who] after writing lessons with chalk, recited them with wide-open mouths.” And her descriptors for Martyn include: “luminous, intellectual, affectionate, beaming with Divine charity, and playful with children.”30 The only extravagance about him was his collection of books, she thought.

Affection appeared within Martyn’s correspondence. Friends from days in England, Daniel Corrie and he wrote weekly letters when they were not in the same location. Corrie, a Hindi scholar, related effectively with Indians and non-Christians. After serving thirty years in Calcutta, he had a brief stint as the first bishop of Madras. Four months after arriving in Cawnpore, Martyn directly asked him:

What will friends at home think of Martyn and Corrie? They went out full of zeal, but, behold! What are they doing? Where are their converts? . . . If I were to go home, I should not be able to make them understand the state of things. . . . I am almost resolved not to administer the ordinance of baptism till convinced in my own mind of the true repentance of the person.31

Another exceptional person heard Martyn preaching to the beggars from his Cawnpore courtyard. In his early thirties, Sheikh Salih would visit his father who lived next door to Martyn. He with some young Muslims “went to see the sport.” Getting to the front of the crowd, they “listened with supreme contempt and audibly criticized what Henry Martyn said.”32 But curious about Christianity, Salih contacted the erratic assistant Sabat for a job. When a copyist, he also bound Martyn’s complete Urdu New Testament; he read all of it. Later baptized on Pentecost Day 1811, he was given the name Abdul Masih (Servant of Messiah). He became a dignified doctor and evangelist among his own people, composer of many hymns, and the second ordained, Indian Anglican (1825). When later a colleague with Daniel Corrie in Agra, Masih wrote commentaries on Matthew, Romans, and Hebrews.33

Before and after poor health left Martyn’s preaching voice weak, he gave even more intense attention to translating scripture. In a letter to Charles Simeon back in England, Martyn had expressed: “What a plague to this country is the multiplicity of its languages. . . .Remove my name from and send every book of mine—particularly Bibles, Testaments, prayer books, hymn books, spelling books.”34 To observe apathy or suffering led him to work with rigor through the tools of grammar. Exact terms were often elusive; many idioms in Urdu perverted meaning; wearisome munshis sapped Martyn’s energy; basic terms such as church proved “repulsive to Hindu mentality and Muslim dogma.” But his strong faith trusted the mind of readers once they had sacred scripture in hand. “The text would be its own perfect advocate.”35

Martyn’s “Report of Progress of Translations” appeared from Cawnpore in December of 1809. Clearly, the scholar who knew that his version though strong was not timeless, he awaited the British and Foreign Bible Society’s saying when to print his Hindoostanee New Testament. The work of translation, always a matter of doing theology, ever seemed also to be a contest between European translators wishing to be faithful to the original and national or Muslim scholars who cared for elegant expression or Persian style. Aiming to complete translations within two years, Martyn had by then nearly completed the Persian text through the Corinthian epistles, but only Romans, I Corinthians, and a few chapters of Matthew were done in Arabic. His broader study and work with Persian enabled the Arabic task; people of the East hardly qualified to judge it. He intended to work on the Psalms after completing the New Testament. Hebrew proved to be his “very constant meditation day and night, being sometimes three weeks at one verse before being richly rewarded to understand the meaning.”36

Months Prior to Leaving India

Ordered by a physician to take an indefinite leave due to poor health, Martyn left Cawnpore on October first, 1810. That a church building opened on the day before departure gave him deep satisfaction. Separated for less than five years, his lingering wish to persuade Lydia Grenfell to return with him to India recurred. After several months in Calcutta where his portrait was painted, where he preached on the anniversary of the Calcutta Bible Society (a copy of which appears in the British Museum), Martyn sailed on 7 January 1811 for Bombay. He stopped along the coast several times including to see the great monument for St. Francis Xavier in Goa. During his five weeks in Bombay, Martyn valued discussion with a “most intelligent Parsee” named Feeroz and a learned Muslim Mahomed Jan. The former stressed that “every man is safe in his own religion.” While such scholars “didn’t yield to his arguments, they all looked up to him with respect as a man of extraordinary learning and piety.”37 With dreams to travel overland to Europe, his Urdu New Testament in hand, Martyn hoped to test and finalize the difficult style of his second Persian version while in Persia (now Iran), to complete his Arabic version in Arabia.

First Christian in Persia with Muslims

On 14 April 1811, Martyn sited the coast of Persia. At Muscat, an Armenian priest blessed him with incense four times within the altar rails—a sign of special favor. In Bushire the governor shared his hookah. Several weeks later he arrived in Shiraz, noted for ancient ruins and a center for Persian poets. Despite loss of strength due to inner fever plus exterior temperatures well over 100 degrees, he donned native Persian dress—stockings, large boots, great coat and a sheepskin cone for his head. In Shiraz Martyn encountered Sufis, other Muslims, Jews, Jewish Muslims, and Armenians. Many wished to argue with their first, visiting English priest. Learning that his Persian New Testament needed to be entirely retranslated, he delved into the task for the next ten months.

Men of all kinds daily chose to engage “the talk of the town.” Martyn described the Prince’s secretary, intent to discuss Soofeeism, as “believing [he] knew not what.” When Martyn commended Jesus’ miracles, others advised that he engage the great Koran, “an everlasting miracle.” When visitors’ bigotry mounted, he bravely spoke to the truth of Christ.38 As ever, he relied on prayer and the Spirit. He wrote to Lydia: “I am in Persia, entrenched in one of its valleys, separated from Indian friends by chains of mountains and a roaring sea, among a people depraved beyond all belief.”39 Also to her, “Frigid reasoning with men of perverse minds seldom brings them to Christ. However, I reason and challenge them to prove the divine mission of their prophet.”40 Shiraz Sufi scholars complimented his “learning, humility and patience; they called him “merdi Khodai”—a man of God.41 A January 19 journal entry discloses his insight into Sufi thought: Since God is not affected by good and evil, pleasure and pain, people too can be perfectly happy (know salvation) when they become like God. Journal entries for March 22 and 28 mention conversations with Armenians on points of theology—the fire of hell, reconciling texts, the Incarnation. “We talked incessantly for four hours . . . until I was quite exhausted and felt the pain in my breast which I used to have in India.”42 Then on April 7 he disputed with a dozen Jews and their priest, who, unaware of Jesus, were surprised by talk of his Resurrection and Ascension.

A small, sixteen page booklet printed in Bristol much later (1839) is titled “The Persian Christian.” When invited to a Persian evening dinner, Martyn was asked to present his Tenants of Faith. Scorn followed. However, he observed a man who spoke little but paid close attention. A few days later he called upon a respected, learned man. Educated at a Madrassa, Mohammed Rahem spoke good English; they discussed European literature and scriptures. When Martyn suggested that “only one religion could be right,” the man asked if Martyn had been consistent with that idea the earlier evening. In return, Martyn boldly asked the man if he was a “sincere Musselman.” Finally, the man answered, “No, indeed I am not.” To which Martyn asked, “Are you a Christian?” “I am; you now have my secret” came the reply. Martyn gave him a New Testament in Persian at their last visit.43

The age-long, medievalist habit of Islamic public debate, to prove superior learning, both frustrated and tempted Martyn. Earlier Journals and three Persian Tracts illustrate. “I wish a spirit of enquiry to be excited but lay not much stress upon arguments. The work of God is seldom wrought this way. . .Confident in his own case . . . he sensed dishonor to his Master in controversy with dogma or logic with the learned Shirazis who believed themselves mandated to undertake defense of Islam.” He later, when perturbed by hassles, resorted to old arguments against Islam, when invited to debate Muslim scholars like Mirza Ibrahim. In tracts he charged: Muhammed did no prophetic foretelling or miracles, used violence, and had multiple marriages. Martyn tried to explain “why God has not shown mercy without the obedience of Christ.”44 Writing to Daniel Corrie from Shiraz on September 12, 18ll, he said:

Dearest Brother . . . you must have written, though I have not seen your handwriting since I left Calcutta. . . One day on a visit of ceremony to the Prime Minister. . . who should make his appearance but my tetric adversary, the said Aga Akbar. I told him that in matters of religion, where the salvation of men was concerned, I would give up nothing to them, but as for points in philosophy, they might have it all their own way. . . . The Persians are far more curious and clever than the Indians. . . .India is the land where we can act at present with most effect. . .45

With handwritten copies of the completed Persian New Testament in hand, Martyn headed north to Isfahan before to Teheran and on to Tabriz. After hours of intemperate controversy in Teheran, during which he met two moollahs—“most ignorant of any I met in Persia or India”—the vizier challenged him to recite the Kalimah: “God is God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.” When Martyn recited: “God is God and Jesus is the Son of God,” hearers became furious. Gathering his translation, he left in haste. Despite nursing his fever for two months at the ambassador’s residence in Tabriz, ill health kept him from presenting his sacred work to the Shah. British Ambassador Sir Gore Ouseley later carried out the honor. Excerpts of the Shah of Persia’s response to the Ambassador: “[you] should know that the copy of the Gospel, which was translated into Persian by the learned exertions of the late Henry Martyn. . . has reached us and has proved highly acceptable to our august mind. . . It has been translated in a style most befitting of sacred books.”46 Later printed by the Russian Bible Society in St. Petersburg, a second edition was published at Calcutta in 1814.

With health somewhat restored, Martyn started out September 2 for the 1300 mile ride, much by horseback, toward Constantinople. Neither the servant hired to speak Persian nor the horses proved reliable. But, the journey included amazing scenery, site of the peaks of Ararat prompting thoughts of Noah, and an ancient Armenian monastery at Ech-Miazin where the Patriarch and monks received him with “great kindness.” Sometimes riding after sunset to avoid daytime heat, the fever ever recurred, at times with a vengeance. Martyn’s journal entries end October 6. At age 31 he breathed his last on 16 October 1812 at Tokat, Turkey—a city “grim with plague,” 250 miles short of Constantinople.47 Armenian clergy gave him a Christian burial, perhaps also winding his body Oriental fashion in a white sheet. News of his death reached England in 1813 as parliament debated how to support Christian missionaries in its territories.48 The following inscription appeared with Martyn’s body, later reinterred in an American and British cemetery at Baghdad: “a Pious and Faithful Servant, called by the Lord himself, as he was returning to his fatherland.”49

Martyn’s Later Influence on Others

Descriptive of the time period, a quote from Martyn’s obituary states:

. . . the memory of the Rev. H. Martyn deserves to be embalmed by the affectionate regrets of all those who can rightly appreciate what is due to exalted piety, to heroic self-denial, to engaging beneficence, to extensive erudition. In him the Church of England has lost a most worthy son, and the general cause of Religion a powerful advocate. . . .50

Another example of his legacy appears in an epitaph written by Thomas Babington Macaulay that begins: “Here Martyn lies. In Manhood’s early bloom / The Christian Hero finds a Pagan tomb. / Religion, sorrowing o’er her favourite son, / Points to the glorious trophies that he won . . .”51 In the Preface to editing Martyn’s journals and letters, S. Wilberforce says: “No modern name is dearer to the church than that of Henry Martyn.” John Sargent’s A Memoir of the Rev. Henry Martyn, published in 1819, saw the twelfth edition reissued in London in 1831. An anonymous news clipping dated October 15, 1867 found by this writer inside the front cover of the Henry Martyn Centre’s copy of Sargent’s book in Cambridge, England states:

. . . One to whom Christian sympathy was as the breath of his nostrils. . . doing the work of ten men. . . leading to question whether it might not be better simply to scatter broadcast as he did, the seeds of Christianity, and leave them to germinate in the native minds under native conditions, than in the approved English way, to try to Christianize by Europeanizing.

Martyn is celebrated in a lesser Festival on 19 October in parts of the Anglican Communion. Authors reflect personal perspective in writing about him—one might stress his recurring anguish over chest pain or intense bouts with fever while another might be more negative toward Islam than would have been true of Martyn. Sir J. W. Kaye describes him: “a strange, sensitive being—all nerve . . . always in an extreme state of tension”; Brian Stanley refers to his “uncompromising evangelicalism”; and an East India official named Elphinstone noted his “good sense” as well as possible “holy bigotry.”52 What this writer has come to appreciate about Martyn is careful translation work sensitive to other living faiths, and openness to learn from Muslims or others alongside faithful Christian commitment.

Not the first Anglican clerical missionary, Martyn has been called “the first modern missionary to Muslims.” The Henry Martyn School of Islamic Studies formally began in Lahore In 1930. Roots for that institution stem from prior events: a 1906 conference of workers in the Muslim world held in Cairo, Egypt; the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910;53 and the Conference held in Jerusalem in 1924 planned by the International Missionary Council begun in 1921. David Lindell, at one time director of HMI (Institute replaced School in the organization’s name), states that Martyn’s “name was given to the School for it signifies a standard of scholarship, a commitment to the Gospel, and a burning love for Muslim people.”54

Through its eighty-year history, HMI has changed location several times; since early in 1970 it is in Hyderabad, an Indian city with a significant Muslim population. Understanding across religious lines—a result of sustained friendship and patient study—has been central for HMI research, language study, or development programs. Shifts of focus have followed: from evangelization to dialogue to reconciliation. Both academic work and praxis enable trust and cooperation. HMI’s library is remarkable in quantity and quality, especially its holdings on Islam. A journal, newsletter, and web site provide further information about this International Centre for Research, Interfaith Relations, and Reconciliation.55 Martyn’s honor extends through hundreds of students, actions of mediation intervention, and interfaith insight or respect.

A further example of legacy is the Henry Martyn Hall located in Cambridge, England next to Holy Trinity Church. Roots of the Hall trace to 1887. The Henry Martyn Library, at first a small collection of missionary biographies, books, and journals, opened in the Hall in 1898. Resources were gathered to help students discover the importance of Missions. After Kenya missionary Canon Graham Kings gave the first, annual Henry Martyn Lecture in Missiology in 1992, the library holdings expanded. During the summer of 1995, library resources were moved to Westminster College; the catalogue of 7,500 books and 35 journals became part of the Newton catalogue of Cambridge University. To mark the centenary, alongside increased scholarly study of mission and world Christianity, the name was changed to Henry Martyn Centre in 1998. Martyn holdings report his life and achievements. They include original letters and sermons, materials about him from other British archives, and early mission activity in India. Letters and papers of his first convert from Islam, Abdul Masih, and Martyn’s correspondence with Daniel Corrie appear as do materials of other missioner notables.

Writers reflect on Martyn’s achievements. Graham Kings notes two basic aspects: scripture translation and life inspiration for others. Kenneth Cragg notes features of translating with which Martyn struggled—finding useful terms within Indian idioms for key terms like grace and truth, redemption and hope. Avril Powell notes how the Urdu translation of the New Testament transformed Muslim scholars’ views of Christianity. And Stephen Neill notes that in less than six years’ time, Martyn left “imperishable memorials”: 1. His Journal, with clear sensitivity for others alongside freedom to fault his own weaknesses. Entries convey his being totally centered in God, his depth of love for poetry, music, and painting. 2. His expertise in Biblical translations for Asia. Compared to the Serampore men, Martyn had a keen ‘ear’ for languages, a sense of idiom, constant contact with Urdu speakers, love for Persian elegance, and insight into Arabic through knowing Hebrew. 3. Enabling a dignified Muslim—Abdul Masih—to claim faith in Jesus the Christ, expressed in part through his new hymns.56

Clinton Bennett reviews the centerpiece of this essay through Martyn’s ecumenical example. While Anglican, he worked with Baptists in Serampore. Near Patna (Dinapore), he conversed in Latin with Fathers and protected Catholic priests from military authorities. During the Persian year, he developed strong friendships with Armenian clergy, brethren, and patriarchs. Alert to the fact that Christian rivalry hurts mission efforts, he stressed cooperation in relating with Muslims.57 Further, he countered attitudes of British superiority; he welcomed many Indians to his home. A scholar at heart, he studied eastern ways of seeing and reasoning; he promoted education. Rather than debate, he chose to credit others’ minds, to express “tender concern for the soul” of Muslims. Alert to the fact that witness to God’s peace through Jesus the Christ is best conveyed through friendship, he showed genuine appreciation for whatever proved best in the Muslims whom he met. Not afraid to admit what he needed to learn, he pursued respect for and knowledge of Islam as much as authentic knowing of his own faith.